On December 21, 2017, India voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the US for its decision to move its embassy to and to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, breaking with international consensus. In spirit, many across the world — not just in Israel or the US — recognise Jerusalem as the de facto spiritual capital of Judaism and West Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel. However, there is a broad international consensus, provided in the Oslo Accords, that given the significance of Jerusalem for the three Abrahamic faiths, the final status of Jerusalem is to be negotiated by the Israelis and Palestinians under a two-state solution. There is broad international support for this as the recent vote in the UN General Assembly proved.
In this sense, India’s vote for the resolution would have been entirely in the order of things. However, given the close ties between India and Israel and India and the US, and more importantly, the “bromance” between Indian PM Narendra Modi and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and the fondness that India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has for the Jewish state, India’s decision has surprised many.
While ties between India and Israel, especially in defence and more recently in agriculture and water management, have burgeoned ever since the Oslo Accords, they have always been kept under wraps save whenever the BJP is in power. It was under a BJP-led government in 2003 when former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon visited India. The current BJP government has hosted Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and will soon host PM Netanyahu. Narendra Modi became the first Indian PM to visit Israel in July this year. Moreover, under Modi, India has deviated from some of its conventional positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict. For instance, in 2014 India refused to condemn Israeli military operations in Gaza. The following year, it abstained from a vote against Israel at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. During his trip to Israel, Modi even dispensed with the long-held tradition whereby most leaders visiting Israel also visit the Palestinian territories.
Soon after the US decision, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a bland statement: “India’s position on Palestine is independent and consistent. It is shaped by our views and interests, and not determined by any third country.” Last year, India abstained from a UNESCO resolution condemning Jewish sovereignty and history in Jerusalem, after having earlier voted in favor. Hence, many had expected that, in this non-binding but highly visible and significant vote, India would either abstain or absent itself, if it did not wish to be seen as taking sides. Many of the BJP’s supporters, including party members, have roundly criticised this decision of the government. Many Hindus find parallels between Israel’s historic claims to Jerusalem with their own claims to places of religious significance to them. Moreover, the Organisation of Islamic Conference periodically passes resolutions regarding Indian Kashmir, which the government regularly repudiates. So, what explains India’s vote at the UN General Assembly?
To start with, India is doing a delicate balancing act in the region, as it needs different sides for different reasons. There was also some Arab lobbying in New Delhi on the eve of the vote. Palestine is no longer the central issue in the Middle East. However, its symbolism in the Muslim world today, with numerous powers laying claim to Muslim leadership, makes it imperative for states to be seen as taking up the cause. India has therefore stuck to its policy of support and aid to Palestine, even if it has de-hyphenated it from Israel.
What may explain the enigma of the India vote is its great power ambitions. India sees itself as a regional and responsible power with a claim to permanent membership in the UN Security Council.
In this vote, high on optics, India wanted to be seen to be on the side of the Arabs. The Middle East is strategically important for India as a major source for its energy requirements; and with around 7 million Indians working there who remit home billions of dollars annually, it is the largest source of foreign exchange remittances from abroad. True, the region also needs Indian labor, as some analysts have pointed out. However, with reforms sweeping through the region and local women and youth increasingly entering the region’s workforce, the demand for Indian labor there is somewhat precariously poised.
Iran may also be another factor. With its victories in Syria and Iraq, the Shiite state is positioning itself as the true defender of Muslim causes, including the Palestinians. Its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had earlier this year raked up the Kashmir issue, calling for its “liberation” together with that of Bahrain and Yemen. On its part, India needs to keep Iran in good humor because of the Chabahar port it is developing there which is important for India’s strategic calculations in Afghanistan and for its connectivity to Eurasia and Central Asia.
Yet, even all these factors could have been bypassed either by India’s abstaining or absenting itself from the vote. Therefore, the vote itself is indicative of other factors. One is the bureaucracy, which still plays a significant role in foreign policy and in sections of which a pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian position is entrenched. On the day of the vote, Indian Muslim leader Badruddin Ajmal tweeted his gratitude to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj for the vote. She responded by asking him to vote for the BJP, angering many of her followers. But that may hold the clue to decoding India’s vote. While the BJP recently won the elections in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, it was with a reduced margin. Indians will go to the polls again in 2019, and the BJP with its Hindu nationalist image will be seeking to reach out to India’s large minority communities. The issue of Palestine had in the past polarized Indians, although there is no empirical evidence that it has impacted elections. India’s UN vote was also hailed by politicians in its only Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Finally, what may explain the enigma of the India vote is its great power ambitions. India sees itself as a regional and responsible power with a claim to permanent membership in the UN Security Council. It recently scored a major diplomatic victory when it was re-elected to the International Court of Justice. In this regard, India would like to abide by UN resolutions and the rules-based international order, and be opposed to unilateral moves. It would also like to maintain its support base in the UN General Assembly. Given this, US threats to name and shame those who took a contrarian position have been jarring to many. Against this backdrop, by opposing the resolution or by abstaining from voting, India would have found itself bracketed with a group of insignificant countries.
In this, India may even be taking a cue from Russia and China, both powers which have cultivated close relations with Israel but which have continued to vote against it in international fora, without jeopardizing their relations with it. With the Middle East in flux, it is getting clearer by the day that Russia and China will be expanding their footprint in the region against a slow but steady US withdrawal. India may want to be in the same boat as them.